Take a look at the first-class section on any airplane today; it’s full of corporate leaders lugging around Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, searching for insights they can use to make their companies as successful as Apple.
Here’s all they need to know: when Jonathan Ive, leader of Apple’s design team, was asked about the company’s goals when setting out to build a new product, he answered simply, "To design and make better products; if we can't make something that is better, we won't do it."
That’s the key: If you’re not trying to make something better, then stop now and give your job to someone who will. (And it doesn’t count if you’re trying to make something different for the sake of being different, or so you can say, "We have one of those, too.") However, if you are truly interested in developing a product that has the chance to change your industry and your company, here’s how:
- Make it cheaper. Even if it’s lacking features present in the original, a lower-priced, basic, yet still useful, version of the product could very well solve user needs better and opens up the possibility of ownership to a whole new set of people. That’s the strategy behind the Kindle Fire. Amazon made a conscious decision to produce a lower-priced tablet with fewer bells and whistles than the iPad, banking on the assumption that consumers wanted to surf the web on a tablet, regardless of 3G connectivity, abundant internal storage, built-in camera and microphone, GPS technology or Bluetooth. And they were right. Analysts have estimated that in the fourth quarter of 2011, Amazon sold 6 million Kindle Fire tablets, accounting for more than half of all Android tablet shipments in the period.
- Make it more convenient. One of the great promises of technology is that it will make our must-do tasks more convenient. Your car, for example, may soon drive itself.ZocDoc cuts out the hassle of making doctors’ appointments by phone. A robot vacuums your home by itself. I’m not suggesting you reinvent a household appliance or beat Google to the self-driving car, but you should consider what you can do to add convenience to the lives of your users. That’s exactly what FreshDirect did. It took going to the grocery store—which, for New York City-dwellers, often meant buying only as much as they could carry—and improved the experience by making it more convenient. Now, almost any New York-area shopper can go to FreshDirect.com or the iPhone and Android apps to schedule the delivery of groceries and household goods right to their doors.
- Make it easier to use. Many successful products are harder to use than they should be. We work around their quirks every day, without even thinking about it. Perhaps, the first few times we used them, we struggled to get them to do what we wanted and it took time to figure out. If you create a product that’s less annoying to use than an existing one, but has the same general function, you’re making something better. Apple does it well. Dyson does, too; by eliminating vacuum bags, improving suction, and replacing wheels with a ball for ease in steering, James Dyson made vacuuming less annoying.
- Make it more fun. We’re all emotional beings. If you can bring fun to your product experience, it will differentiate it from the competition by drawing people in and inspiring them to share their experiences with their friends. That’s what Virgin Airlines and JetBlue are doing when they compete on perks like the size of the TV screens on every seatback and the volume of content available. They’re vying to be the most fun airline, because fun is better.
The line between becoming a pioneer and a "me-too" flop can be unclear when you’re in the weeds of development. Uncertainty is an easier destination to arrive at than confidence, especially when the truth is, there’s no such thing as making anything that’s really new. Everything is an evolution of something else. But you can make something better. When in doubt, ask yourself if you’d use your new product instead of the market leader’s. If the answer is yes, keep going. If it’s no, then stop and rethink.
[Image: Flickr user Nicolas Janik]